JUNE 1826

     Capitan Jaime Mendoza.

     He liked the sound of it.  It had taken nearly a year but the order for his promotion had finally arrived.  Raising the rank of his sergeant was one of the first official acts Don Alejandro de la Vega had undertaken after he had been elected the new alcalde of Los Angeles.

     Mendoza donned the uniform that bore the insignia of his new commission.  Proudly, he looked at himself in the mirror.  The ten pounds he had lost recently were noticeable by their absence.

     Life had been much kinder to the once stout sergeant now that Spain no longer governed the territory of Alta California.  Don Alejandro, in an effort to separate the military from the government, had made Mendoza the commandante of the garrison.  The elder de la Vega was a kind and fair administrator, who at times though was frustrated by Mendoza's simple kind-heartedness, was also very understanding. Hedid not browbeat or insult the well-meaning sergeant as the last two alcaldes had done.

     And he was getting married.  Sometimes he even found it hard to believe.  Leonora Ortega, the pueblo's seamstress, had said yes when he had proposed to her this past New Year's Eve.  They were to be wed in September, just three months away, on his fortieth birthday.

     Only two things marred the soldier's present happiness, the loss of Ana Maria and Felipe's baby a month earlier and Leonora's refusal to talk about her first marriage.  Mendoza had to admit he had been looking forward to the arrival of Leonora's grandchild probably even more than his novia had been.

     Even before he had proposed, he considered Ana Maria his daughter and thought of Felipe as a surrogate son.  He knew the young couple must be devastated by the sudden loss of their baby.

    Not much had been heard from Ana Maria and Felipe since the miscarriage.  Mendoza figured they were busy with their life in Santa Paula, where Felipe was apprenticing to become a lawyer.  It would be six months yet before they returned to Los Angeles.

     The new capitan's thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door of his quarters.  "Mendoza," called out Don Alejandro.  "Are you ready, Capitan?"  He asked the question with a smile in his voice.

     "Si, mi Alcalde," was the reply.  Mendoza gave himself one more appraising glance in the mirror before picking up his hat and gloves on his way out of his room.

     Don Alejandro shook his head.  No matter how many times he commented on it, he could not break the soldier's habit of addressing him so formally.  For the past fifteen years, ever since Mendoza had been stationed in Los Angeles, he had always called the elder de la Vega Don Alejandro.  But after he had been elected alcalde, the sergeant would not address him any other way.

     It irritated him to no end.  Oh well, sighed Don Alejandro.  It really was the least of his problems.

      The chaos he had inherited from de Soto was mind boggling.  One look at the tax rolls told him that his predecessor had been skimming money from the tax collections.  No doubt put aside so the former alcalde could live the good life upon his return to Madrid.   No wonder de Soto had been in such a hurry to leave Los Angeles, Don Alejandro had mused at the time.

     One of the first things the elder de la Vega did as alcalde was to rescind all the unnecessary levies.  The bed taxes, livestock taxes, crop taxes and other unfair taxes that had burdened the people for so long.  Don Alejandro discovered that the pueblo's tax revenues had far exceeded what the Spanish government had actually requested.  The new Mexican government's demands were even less.  For now anyway, thought the old don cynically.

     Mendoza and Don Alejandro made their way out to the plaza where the promotion ceremony was going to be held.   There was also to be a fiesta later that evening in honor of the new officers.  Corporal Sepulveda was now a sergeant and two privates had been made corporals.

     The ceremony went off without a hitch, except for Mendoza nervously dropping his sword as he was saluting his men.

     "Dismissed," the new capitan called out, ending the short ritual.  Leonora Ortega immediately came over to him, followed by Diego and Victoria.

     "I'm so proud of you, Jaime," Leonora stated as she placed her hand on his arm.  The de la Vegas also congratulated him.

      Mendoza smiled broadly at his novia's declaration.  He only wished she would have hugged him or kissed him on the cheek as Victoria had done.  Leonora didn't even appear perturbed by the former innkeepers's small show of affection.  It worried him a little that she did not display her emotions in public.

    Or in private, for that matter, a little voice in his mind taunted him.  Mendoza just ignored it.   After they were married, things between them would be different, he promised himself.

     The newly promoted capitan gallantly offered his fiancée his arm and escorted her to the tavern for a celebratory lunch.
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     Capitan Mendoza was coming out of the tavern with several of his men about a month later  He stopped in his tracks as he spied Diego de la Vega emerge from the dressmaking shop owned by his novia.   Whatever the tall caballero had told Leonora must have been bad, for the seamstress was in tears.

     Madre de Dios!  The concerned soldier scurried across the plaza as fast as he could.  He arrived at the shop as Diego was saying goodbye.

     "I'll let you know if we hear anything more," Diego advised the weeping woman.  "Don't worry, Señora, we'll find her."

     "Find who?" Mendoza demanded to know.   "What is going on?"

     Leonora had not realized her novio was there until he had spoken.  She collapsed into his arms, crying even harder.  Diego was left with the task of explaining the cause of her tears to the bewildered capitan.

     "Ana Maria has disappeared," Diego stated unhappily.  "Felipe and I spent several days searching for her, but. . ."  He shrugged his broad shoulders.  "I'm sorry, Serg. . .I mean Capitan."

     "Dios mio," replied Jaime in a stunned tone.  "This is just terrible news."  He patted Leonora on the back.   She continued to sob on his chest, soaking the front of his uniform.

     Diego mounted his horse and headed out of the pueblo.  Mendoza steered the near hysterical seamstress back inside her shop.  He turned the sign in the window from ‘Open' to ‘Closed'.  Leading her to the living quarters in the back of the building, he made her sit on the settee.  Then Mendoza went into the tiny kitchen and made them both a cup of hot sweet tea.

    Tears were still streaming down Leonora's face as she tried to compose herself.  Jaime handed  her the cup of hot beverage.

     "Gracias, Jaime," she said automatically.  She took a small sip before deliberately placing the cup and its saucer on the side table.  She stared up at him with such sad eyes.  "My hija is dead," she whispered.

     "No, Leonora, we don't know that," he admonished.  "Don't even think it."  He had to admit to himself that the same thought had crossed his mind.  But it couldn't be true.  It just couldn't be.

     "Why else would she vanish?" asked Leonora a little fiercely.  "She would never willingly leave Felipe .  She's been in love with him ever since we moved to Los Angeles."  She shook her head wearily.  "No, something horrible must have happened to her."

     "We can't think like that," Jaime tried to comfort her by putting his arms around her. He drew her close  as other thoughts popped into his head.  Ones that were totally inappropriate.   Berating himself mentally, he tried to drive them from of his brain.

     Leonora wept silently as Mendoza held her.  She didn't want to believe her hija was dead.  Ana Maria had been the only good thing to come out of her first marriage.  Recalling the advice her daughter had given her several months ago, she withdrew from her fiancé's arms and wiped the dampness from her face.

     "Jaime," she began in a shaky voice.  "I want to tell you about Ana Maria's father."

     "You don't have to," Mendoza replied, although he was very eager to hear about the other man.  He was just sad her daughter's mysterious disappearance finally caused her to open up to him.

      "No, I need to," stated Leonora.  "You should know.  A marriage built on secrets and lies is only doomed to failure."  She took a deep breath before starting her story.  "You know that my husband was killed nearly fifteen years ago, during the August revolution.  He abandoned us to join the rebel army. . ."

     She had not even known that Jose had any political leanings at the time.   He had been farmhand, working for her father, Gaspar Vasquez.  They had lived in a small cottage on the outskirts of Guadalajara City.  Leonora had taken in mending and other sewing to help make ends meet.

     Her mother had been a seamstress as had her grandmother.  It was a skill that had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations in her family.

    Both of Leonora's sisters were also accomplished needlewomen.   Her youngest sibling, Graciela, was a popular dressmaker with the high society ladies in Guadalajara.  Both sisters had married well-to-do merchants.   Bitterly, Leonora knew it was her own foolishness she ended up in the dire circumstances she found herself in after Jose's death.

     They had met when she was just seventeen.  The oldest of the three sisters, she was also the plainest of them.  Jose had seemed interested in her alone though when he had been hired as a farmhand by her father.  Usually all the boys ignored her and flocked around more beautiful Antonia and Graciela.

     She had been totally ignorant of what went on between a man and a woman.   So when Jose took liberties, she allowed him to do so.  It had just been so flattering that this handsome, strong twenty-year old man had sought her out to pay attention toward.  All thoughts of propriety flew right out of her head.

     Jose had been working for her father for about three months when he finally took her virginity.  That woke Leonora up to the fact what they had doing was terribly wrong.  It had hurt so much.  And Jose was unsympathetic to her tears and protests to stop.

     She stormed out of the barn, promising herself it would never happen again.  But it was too late, the damage had been done.  It took her two months to realize she was with child.

     When Leonora confronted Jose, he denied the child was his.  It was only when she threatened to tell her father that Jose grudgingly offered to marry her.  He had been scared of what Señor Vasquez would to do him if the older man found out what he had done to his daughter.  So there really wasn't any other choice.

     They pretended to everyone theirs was a love match.  The wedding was held three weeks later, as soon as the banns had been read.  Her parents were somewhat dismayed at the idea of their daughter marrying a farmhand but also realized that it might be the best offer the plain Leonora would get.

     The marriage was a disaster from the start.  Any love Leonora had felt toward Jose had died the day he had destroyed her innocence.   Their union was unpleasantly consummated on their wedding night.  Then after that Jose left her alone.  She was already pregnant, he figured he had done his duty.  Leonora knew he sought out other women but she didn't care, even when she learned he had been with other women at the same time he had been romancing her.

     Leonora made him promise though to stay away from her sisters.  That humiliation would have been too much to bear. Other than that, who he slept with wasn't her concern, as long as it wasn't her.

     It all had been worth it, however, when their daughter was born.  Ana Maria had been such a beautiful baby with curly black hair and cute little dimples.  Leonora had immediately fell in love with her little daughter.  Jose though, had been totally indifferent.  He saw the infant as another unwanted burden with which he had been shackled.   It was not long after Ana Maria's birth he had started drinking.

     Leonora just didn't cared what her husband did.  She had her beautiful baby daughter and her skill with a needle.  Jose still worked for her family, but the pay he received was soon wasted on alcohol.

    When Ana Maria was about two years old, Jose began to change his ways.  He had come home one morning after being out all night, drinking and sleeping with one of his mistresses.  Even in his hung-over condition, he realized his little daughter was afraid of him.  She peeped out at him from behind her mother's skirts, her eyes full of terror as she considered him a stranger.

     He had to admit she was an adorable child.  And it bothered his conscience that she was essentially growing up without a father.

     At first Leonora eyed his sudden change of heart with suspicion.  Wondering at his motives, she kept a close watch over his interaction with his daughter.  When she realized he was truly interested in being a father, she did whatever she could to encourage him.  Jose stopped drinking and began staying home more in the evenings.

     But the animosity that existed between husband and wife never disappeared completely.  Thinking with a shudder of disgust of all the other women Jose had been with, Leonora would not let him touch her.   He had not kept his end of his marriage vows, why should she?   It only bothered her a little that he would wait until Ana Maria fell asleep, then sneak out to meet one of his mistresses.

     Then the revolution broke out.  Jose had left one night as he usually did and just never came back.  Leonora had to learn from his most current girlfriend that he had joined up with Padre Hidalgo's army.

     The region where Leonora and her family lived had been the heart of the final battle.  They had gathered what they could of their belongings and had fled..  Traveling with her parents and sisters, Leonora and Ana Maria had made their way north, away from the fighting.

     First the Vasquez family went to Mazatlan, where Gaspar's brother, Leonora's uncle, lived.  Then they moved on to Culiacán where an aunt resided.

     It was while they were there, they heard of Jose's death.  After three months the rest of Leonora's family went back to Guadalajara but she stayed behind in Culiacán.  Tia Federica was her mother's eldest sister so she was also a seamstress.  She had been widowed for about ten years.  Her five sons were all grown up and had  moved away.

     She welcomed her niece and grandniece with open arms.  Leonora worked at Federica's dressmaking shop and the young Ana Maria was taught to sew as soon as she could be trusted with a needle.  This happy situation had lasted for nine years, until Ana Maria was twelve.  Then Tia Federica had died.

     Leonora's cousins had swooped down upon their mother's estate, selling her business and dividing the profits amongst themselves.  She and Ana Maria had found themselves without a home once again.

     She had too much pride to return to her family.  There were just too many bad memories back in Guadalajara.

     The mother and daughter continued to move northward, living a year or two each in the pueblos of Hermosillo, Nogales and San Diego.  It had been in San Diego Leonora had heard about how the small pueblo of Los Angeles was without a tailor or seamstress.  With the thought of being able to take advantage of the situation and finally finding a home for her daughter and herself, she had moved them once more.

     Leonora also about that time began to worry that Ana Maria was turning out to be a female version of her father.  It seemed everywhere they went, boys and men had flocked around the budding beauty her daughter had become.  The anxiety that the girl was like Jose plus Leonora's jealous memories of her sisters caused her to mistreat Ana Maria until Victoria and Zorro had made her realize what she was doing.

      "And you know the rest," Leonora said as she finished her tale.  She was dabbing again at her wet cheeks.

     Mendoza did not know what to say.  He knew his novia was a complicated woman but he had no idea.  Hers had been a life of hardships.  And now Ana Maria was missing.  The soldier was only glad he had had no part in the August Revolution.  He had been on his way to Los Angeles when it had occurred.  He shook his head, thinking how awful it would be if he had been the soldier responsible for her husband's death.

     "I'm sorry, Leonora,"Jaime finally declared, patting her hand, "that you had to live through all that."  He tried to smile but failed miserably  "Ana Maria is all right.  You'll see."

     "I hope you're right," responded Leonora, sniffing away her tears, sincerely doubting his optimism.  She took a deep breath and looked up at her fiancé.  "I know you won't like this, but I think we should postpone the wedding until we know whether she. . ."

     She could not go on as she dissolved into tears again.  Jaime took her into his arms once more and told her he agreed with her suggestion.  He just prayed fervently that Ana Maria would be found soon.
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